Quick Fixes: Drugs in America from Prohibition to the 21st-Century Binge, by Benjamin Y. Fong (Jacobin, 264 pp., $24.95)
Drugs make for easy symbols. Breaking Bad, the mid-aughts prestige TV hit about methamphetamine, is not really about methamphetamine, but about the sin of pride—the meth is a pretext. Pick up a book about the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, and prescription opioids become, in the hands of so many middling journalists, a symbol for the evils of capitalism.
It is so easy, in fact, to make drugs into a symbol that some people go one step further. Their view is that drugs are not really “about” drugs, but that their characteristics are epiphenomenal to the particular social context in which they are consumed. Their cultural and political significance becomes our primary interest, their psychoactive effects and addicting properties an afterthought.
In Quick Fixes, academic Benjamin Y. Fong offers an example par excellence of this approach. Quick Fixes is billed as a history of drugs, but it is more a mishmash of drug-related tidbits, linked by the conceit that drugs are not really “about” drugs. “Drug policy is not about drugs,” Fong asserts, which is to say that “when people aim to control or regulate drugs, they are actually aiming to control or regulate other things about society.” And as the book reveals, once you take this leap—once you try to ignore that drugs are the problem—you are free to make all sorts of odd arguments.
Quick Fixes is organized into brief essays, each nominally about a specific drug—alcohol, cocaine, meth—and its social significance. Fong dwells little on the pharmacological effects of these substances, and only some on the experience thereof. Rather, he prosecutes his case that drugs are primarily tools, either of social control or, on occasion, of personal liberation.
To his credit, this approach produces an admirable skepticism of drugs. Fong is willing, for example, to skewer the over-prescription of amphetamine for ADHD, despite the fact that many of his Jacobin-subscribing readers are probably on it. He seems less taken in than some by the psychoactive revolution. And while Fong insists, against medical consensus, that marijuana is not addictive, he at least glances at the idea that corporate marijuana production might be a problem.
At the same time, avoiding discussion of the substances themselves produces some absurdities. Writing about nicotine, Fong suggests that “it is this straightforwardly destructive element of cigarette smoking that is ultimately the source of its appeal…. Every cigarette puff is a daring ‘Fuck you’ to the neoliberal ethic of self-care, deadening relief from a deadened society.” I would suggest, to the contrary, that the appeal of nicotine is that it is a stimulant, and also eventually that it is addictive. Similarly, responding to anthracite miners’ habit of “tak[ing] a day’s supply of whiskey down into the mines at the start of each shift,” Fong writes that “[n]eedless to say, such practices chafed against the capitalist sensibility.” Perhaps I am a victim of such “capitalist sensibility,” but being drunk in a mine seems intrinsically hazardous.
Once you disconnect your history of drugs from the drugs themselves, in fact, you can talk about almost anything you want. Fong hits the usual notes: pioneering drug warrior Harry Anslinger makes many appearances, with the usual embarrassing quotes rolled out. (I assure you, I can find embarrassing quotes from 1930s lefties, too.) So do CIA crack-dealing and MK-ULTRA experiments. But free-floating social analysis also lets Fong make strange assertions, such as his claim that the crack cocaine markets of the late 1980s served to “fill part of the void left in the wake of deindustrialization,” and that many people opted to work on the street rather than at McDonalds because of the low wages paid by the latter—ignoring the evidence that crack-dealing, in particular, was not wage-maximizing behavior.
Once you maintain that drug policy is not really about drugs, then you can make policy about whatever you want, too. In the book’s brief discussion of how we could be handling drugs differently, Fong predictably endorses a “demand reduction” approach. But by demand reduction, he does not mean drug treatment, but, quite literally, Medicare for All and a Federal Jobs Guarantee. Problematic drug use is about the poverty and suffering engendered by capitalism, Fong argues, and policies preferred by the progressive Left are how to address it.
That’s a silly argument on empirical grounds alone. As Stanford drug policy expert Keith Humphreys notes in his recent book Addiction: A Very Short Introduction, lots of evidence rebuts the idea that drug use is driven primarily by poverty. Youth alcohol problems are more common in more economically egalitarian societies; surveys suggest that lower-income people who get a job or increase their earnings increase their consumption of tobacco and alcohol; globally, as societies develop, their consumption of addictive drugs increases. “Although there are many good reasons to attempt to reduce poverty,” Humphreys writes, “promising that this will reduce drug use and addiction in unwise.”
Fong’s poverty argument is both wrong and telling. If drugs are not really about drugs—if we understand drug problems as merely part of the context of deeper social forces—then drug policy does not need to be about drugs, either. We do not need, for example, to design specific solutions to the specific problem of 100,000 drug deaths per annum. Instead, we can simply wait: come the revolution, such wounds will heal themselves.